Saturday, August 01, 2015

The world's smallest countries, and my life's goal

I've always been fascinated by microstates and city-states - sovereign nations that in some cases are only a few square miles in size.

I find them interesting for a variety of reasons. These little nations - many of which are smaller than inside-the-loop Houston, some which which contain only a few thousand residents - somehow manage to exist among the likes of China, India, the United States, Brazil, Russia.

Their histories, in many cases, are fascinating. A lot of European miscrostates, for example, are vestiges of feudalism. The co-princes of Andorra are the President of France and the Bishop of Urgell: an arrangement dating back to 1278. Liechtenstein is considered to be the only surviving remnant of the Holy Roman Empire. The Marshall Islands, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia, on the other hand, are groups of Pacific islands the United States acquired after World War II which, although now independent, still rely on the United States to provide basic services such as postal delivery.

A lot of these small countries face significant hardships. I've already written about the heart-rending tragedy of Nauru, for example. Nauru's low-lying island brethren - Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Maldives - face grave threats from rising sea levels.

These are the 25 smallest countries in the world, by total area. The overwhelming majority of them are island nations:
  1. Vatican City (0.17 sq mi) - Europe (completely surrounded by Rome, Italy)
  2. Monaco (0.78 sq mi) - Europe (located along French Mediterranean coast)
  3. Nauru (8.1 sq mi) - Pacific Ocean (single island)
  4. Tuvalu (10.0 sq mi) - Pacific Ocean (multiple islands/atolls)
  5. San Marino (23.6 sq mi) - Europe (completely surrounded by Italy)
  6. Liechtenstein (61.8 sq mi) -  Europe (located between Switzerland and Austria in the Alps)
  7. Marshall Islands (69.9 sq mi) - Pacific Ocean (multiple islands/atolls)
  8. St. Kitts and Nevis (100.8 sq mi) - Eastern Caribbean (two islands) VISITED 6/2015
  9. Maldives (115.1 sq mi) - Indian Ocean (multiple islands/atolls)
  10. Malta (122.0 sq mi) - Mediterranean (archipelago located due south of Sicily, Italy)
  11. Grenada (132.8 sq mi) - Eastern Caribbean (archipelago)
  12. St. Vincent and the Grenadines (150.2 sq mi) - Eastern Caribbean (multiple islands)
  13. Barbados (169.5 sq mi) - Eastern Caribbean (single island) VISITED 6/2015
  14. Antigua and Barbuda (169.9 sq mi) - Eastern Caribbean (two islands) VISITED 6/2015
  15. Seychelles (174.5 sq mi) - Indian Ocean (archipelago off the east coast of Africa)
  16. Palau (177.2 sq mi) - Pacific Ocean (multiple islands and atolls)
  17. Andorra (180.7 sq mi) - Europe (located between France and Spain in the Pyrenees)
  18. St. Lucia (237.8 sq mi) - Eastern Caribbean (single island) VISITED 6/2015
  19. Federated States of Micronesia (271.0 sq mi) - Pacific Ocean (multiple islands and atolls)
  20. Singapore (276.4 sq mi) - Asia (archipelago located at southern tip of Malay Peninsula)
  21. Tonga (288.4 sq mi) - Pacific Ocean (multiple islands and atolls)
  22. Dominica (290.0 sq mi) - Eastern Caribbean (archipelago)
  23. Bahrain (295.4 sq mi) - Asia (archipelago off the northern coast of the Arabian Peninsula)
  24. Kiribati (313.1 sq mi) - Pacific Ocean (multiple islands/atolls)
  25. São Tomé and Príncipe (372.2 sq mi) - Africa (archipelago off the western coast of Africa)
The "top 25" is a good cutoff, because the next smallest country - Comoros - is almost twice as large as São Tomé's 372 square miles. For purposes of comparison, Harris County is 1,777 square miles in area. Inside-the-loop Houston, i.e. the area of the city encompassed by 610, accounts for approximately 96 square miles of land area.

The world's smallest countries also tend to be the world's least populous (for good reason; there's only so much land available for people to live upon). Of the 25 smallest countries by area listed above, only four - Bahrain, Singapore, Malta and the Maldives - are not also among the 25 smallest countries by population. Malta and the Maldives, in fact, fall right outside the smallest 25; Singapore, on the other hand, has a population of almost 5.5 million people, making it more populous than Norway, Ireland or New Zealand.

Anyway, my focus is on the smallest countries by area, not population, and I want to visit all 25 of the countries listed above before I die.

Yes, it's a rather esoteric goal. But it's really no different than those who endeavor to visit all 30 Major League baseball parks or all the National Parks of the United States within their lifetimes. And no, it's not my life's only goal; it's just something I'd like to accomplish.

Some of these tiny nations will be relatively easy for me to visit. Vatican City, home of St. Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, is a mandatory part of any tour of Rome. Monaco should be easy to visit if I ever tour the French Riviera. Andorra is a bus ride from Barcelona. Other places will be a bit more difficult to visit. Trips to The Maldives, Seychelles and Bahrain would probably require me to transfer through Dubai. In order to get to The Federated States of Micronesia, Palau or the Marshall Islands, I'd need to use United's "Island Hopper" service that operates between Guam and Honolulu. Getting to São Tomé and Príncipe,would require first flying to Portugal, Ghana or Angola. And in order to get to Nauru, I'd need to first fly to Fiji (which, believe or not, is not even in the smallest 40 countries) or Australia, and then take a plane to the imperiled phosphate island. Visiting some of these countries also requires applying for visas, and a couple of them might not be particularly safe to visit right now.

My quest to visit these countries began in earnest last month, when I visited St. Kitts (the smallest sovereign nation in the Western Hemisphere), Antigua and Barbuda, St. Lucia, and Barbados during a cruise of the eastern Caribbean. I was only at each of these places for a few hours apiece, while my ship was in port, but I went on tours of each of these countries, stood on their soil, took in their sights, met their people and ate their food, so I can say I've been there.

That's 4 out of 25 microstates, or 16%. It's a start. Can I get to the other 21 before I shove off this mortal coil? I'm going to try.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Direct flights from Houston to Johannesburg

No, it's not a new service, but rather a curious tidbit of Houston's commercial aviation history from three decades ago.

JNB-IAH First flight cover, December 1982. Source: The Timetablist
In December 1982, South African Airways began direct service between Johannesburg and Houston Intercontinental using long-haul Boeing 747SP aircraft. Even though the 747SP was the longest-range commercial airliner available at the time, the 9,000-mile distance between the two cities was such that the plane still had to make an intermediate refueling stop at Cape Verde's Sal Island Airport (as the July 1983 Official Airline Guide indicates; Sal Island was a stopover point for much of SAA's overseas services at the time due to the fact that the Apartheid government's flag carrier was not permitted to fly over most of the African continent).

It's unclear to me exactly what market this peculiar route was intended to serve, especially since Houston was nothing like the international air hub that it is today (in 1982, the only other trans-oceanic flights out of IAH were to London, Paris and Amsterdam) and Apartheid-era South Africa was not exactly a major travel destination. Was it intended to be an energy-related connection, even though South Africa was not a significant petroleum producer?

Needless to say, the presence of the racist government's airline in Houston was controversial, and local civil rights activists successfully lobbied mayor Kathy Whitmire and city council to revoke SAA's landing rights even before Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which barred South African airlines from flying to the United States.

SAA did not resume the service after Apartheid ended and the ban on its flights was lifted. Scheduled air services from Houston to the African continent would not reappear until 2011, when United began nonstop flights to Lagos, Nigeria.

Flights from Houston to South Africa would make much more sense now than they did in the early 1980s, considering how much larger of an international travel hub Bush Intercontinental is today and given that United and South African Airways are both Star Alliance members. During a trade mission in January of 2014, mayor Annise Parker and city officials even discussed the matter with South African aviation officials. It's possible that flights from Houston to Johannesburg could someday again become a reality. The longer ranges of the Boeing 777 and 787 mean that interim stopovers in Cape Verde are no longer necessary.

A quick observation:

If you are a commenter, there is a 99.94% chance that you are a miserable, hateful, ignorant, bigoted, festering piece of shit.

I really need to stop reading the comments section.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Way to go, ladies!

A belated congratulations to the US Womens' National Team, who won the 2015 FIFA Womens World Cup in convincing fashion last weekend by routing Japan, 5-2. The victory is the US Womens' first title in a dozen years and avenges their 2011 loss to this same Japanese team.

The United States might not be a "soccer" nation, but there's no denying that its womens' program is the best in the world. It now has three championships, and has never placed worst than third place in the history of the Womens' World Cup. (Germany, with two titles, comes in a distant second; Sweden and Japan both have a single championship apiece.)

For what it's worth, last Sunday's final also attracted the biggest US television audience for any soccer game ever - men or women.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Greetings from Puerto Rico!

San Juan is more humid than Houston.

Yes. You read that right. I can literally taste the seawater with every breath and I've been dripping in sweat since the second I stepped out of the airport. At least the food is good.

I'm here along with my parents and my son. Tomorrow we're going to spend a week cruising to the little island-nations to the seas east of here: St. Kitts, St. Lucia, Barbados, etc. We will spend another week at a timeshare here in San Juan when we return.

We've had this trip planned for a long while; needless to say I've been looking forward to it for months. Hopefully I'll have a nice writeup with a bunch of pictures later.

This is also the first time I've ever tried to write a blog entry on an iPad Mini. I don't think I'll be doing this very often.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

How to combat local media overcoverage of minor weather events

The Houston region got its first taste of this year’s hurricane season yesterday, as Tropical Storm Bill made landfall. While any tropical weather event is to be taken seriously – there was legitimate concern that ground still saturated from recent storms might not be able to handle Bill’s rainfall – the storm’s actual effects turned out to be rather mild.

That didn’t stop the local television news media from milking Bill for all it was worth. If they were able to generate this much hype for a relatively minor tropical storm, I shudder to think what they’ll come up with when an actual category-three hurricane approaches later this summer.

Was the wall-to-wall coverage of this storm silly, excessive and unnecessary? Of course it was. Did KPRC really need to pre-empt Jimmy Fallon on Monday night to bring us inane and repetitive “team coverage” of people sitting in front of computers at Houston Transtar or bemused tourists on Galveston Island? Not really. Did KHOU really have to bring Dr. Neil Frank out of retirement to answer stupid questions about evacuations or send reporters to interview people riding the Bolivar Ferry? No.

But they did it anyway. This is what the local media does every time a tropical cyclone approaches. I’ve written about this before. They can’t help themselves; hurricanes are the raison d’etre of the local TV news.

The local media’s over-hype of storms like Bill is stupid, annoying and potentially lethal in that it desensitizes people to much more serious events that might occur later in the hurricane season. Fortunately, there’s a simple way to combat it: just quit watching their ridiculous coverage of the storm.

That’s it. Turn off the TV.

Let them know that you don’t care about the wanna-be surfers who went down to Galveston to take advantage of the slightly-higher-than-normal waves.

Let them know that you that, while you're glad that the emergency operations folks in Brazoria County will have a place to sleep tonight, the number cots people have brought in is of no concern to you.

Let them know that you think it’s stupid that they actually interviewed a grocery store manager regarding people buying all his drinking water. (Drinking water that people went out and hoarded because the local news media’s shrill coverage of this event spooked them, no doubt…)

Let them know that you don’t give a flip about the old toothless guy near Rollover Pass has decided not to evacuate.

Let them know that you don’t want to see “viewer pictures and videos” of the storm.

Let them know that that you will not participate in the deification of the meteorologists that occurs every time these storms approach.

Let them know these things by not watching. Turn off the TV. Get your updates from the National Weather Service’s website, or Eric Berger’s blog.

When the local TV producers see their ratings drop, then maybe, just maybe, they’ll get the message. They’ll realize that people are sick and tired of their ridiculous, panicky, overblown coverage of these storm events and begin treating them with the sane, level-headed and useful coverage they really deserve.

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the deadly catastrophe that was the Rita Evacuation – an event driven almost entirely by local media hyperbole – we need to get the message to the local TV news that we don’t appreciate their unhelpful, unnecessary and embarrassing sensationalism.

We can do that by not watching.

John Nova Lomax's take on the hype is a must-read.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Alabama-Birmingham resurrects its football program

The Blazers might be coming back from the dead!
At a press conference Monday evening, president Ray Watts and athletic director Mark Ingram confirmed that the football Blazers will indeed be returning to the university.  It was Watts’ controversial decision to axe the football program in the first place last December.

When asked about the about-face, Watts stated that he didn’t want to dwell on the past.

“I don’t want pursue a lot of time looking back. … [It’s time for] healing and moving ahead,” Watts said in a press conference that essentially raised more questions than provided answers, adding in what will be a controversial comment that there was no “tangible” support financially when the initial decision was made.
So how were the financial problems that doomed UAB's football program last fall resolved?
Watts explained to the Associated Press prior to the press conference that his reversal came after spending the weekend in meetings with supporters of UAB football.  According to the president, those supporters have agreed to cover the cost of a projected $17 million-plus deficit over the next five years. Watts added that supporters “raised about 10 percent of the estimated $12.5 million- $14.5 million needed for a turf practice field and new fieldhouse,” the AP wrote.

“Our students, our alumni, the city of Birmingham and now many community members have stepped up with commitments to cover that $17.2 million operational deficit,” Watts said. “That’s why we’re in a position today to make this decision.”
There are certain fundraising deadlines for bringing football back, but Watts declined to get into on specifics on that subject or the subject of just when the Blazers will begin play anew.
Assuming those fundraising deadlines are met, the Blazers will probably resume playing football in the fall of 2016, as a member of Conference USA. Left unanswered is how UAB's administrators, fans and boosters will continue to push back against the University of Alabama System Board of Trustee's alleged hostility towards UAB's football program, although it's clear that a groundswell of popular as well as political support is what led to its reinstatement.

ESPN's Mark Schlabach provides an excellent FAQ of the timeline for bringing back to life UAB's football program. FiveThirtyEight's David Goldenberg looks inside the competing studies that killed, and then brought back to life, the UAB program.

For what it's worth, I think the team's nickname should be changed from the Blazers to the Zombies.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

What not to tell your employees during a weather emergency

Everybody has stories about last week's devastating floods, so here's one worth sharing. This is an actual text message that a local employer sent out to staff via an alert system Tuesday morning:
I'm aware that many of you are having weather related issues and it's affecting your ability to get to work on time. The most critical thing is your safety. If you can make it safely, please come to work. I would expect late arrivals for many. Otherwise I understand if you need an unscheduled vacation day.
I am obviously not going to identify the employer who sent this text or reveal how I learned about it. I just felt that this utterly tone-deaf message was worth sharing as an example of how not to manage one's employees in the event of a crisis.

Let's recap: Houston just experienced its most significant weather event since Hurricane Ike, with some parts of the city receiving over ten inches of rain in a matter of a few hours. Streets and freeways are flooded. METRO has suspended public transportation services, and HISD and other school districts have cancelled classes. Local elected officials have urged people to stay home.

Yet the folks who work for this particular employer are being told that they either need to show up to work or use a vacation day, i.e., one of those relatively scarce days that people like to use for, well, actual vacations.

Maybe this particular employer does not have the means to compensate absences caused by bad weather. And it is worth noting that at least these employees will be paid, even if it's through vacation time; there are a lot of hourly-wage workers who couldn't make it into work last Tuesday and won't receive any wages at all for that day.

But all that misses the point, which is the astonishing insensitivity of this message. Whomever wrote it not only seemed to have no empathy towards the plight of his or her employees (boilerplate blather about "safety" aside), but even managed to make the situation about him or herself: "I would expect" people to arrive late; "I understand" if people have to take a vacation day because the kids are at home, the buses aren't running and the mayor told people to stay off the streets.

And that's just for the folks who are otherwise safe at home. Imagine if you were standing in foot-deep water inside your home, or had to abandon your car in high water, and you received that text!

Instead of sending out such an uncompassionate message, why not at least acknowledge the situation at hand (flooded freeways, kids home from school, no local or park-and-ride buses) and express hope that nobody suffered any loss? Why not suggest that people try to work from home, if they're able to do so? And why mention anything about using an "unscheduled vacation day" at all? Just say something like "we will determine how to address your timesheet tomorrow" and leave it there.

Unfortunately, this is just another example of the fact that just because somebody is in a management position doesn't necessarily mean that they know how to "manage."

Oh, and one more thing about this text: it was sent at 7:55 in the morning.

The Rockets end the season on a (mostly) high note

The Rockets' comeback against the Los Angeles Clippers in game five of the second round of the playoff was utterly amazing: down by 19 points, and staring elimination in the face, they rallied to win that game, as well as the next two games, to become only the ninth team in NBA history to come back from a three-game series deficit to win.

That put the Rockets into the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 1997, where they once again found themselves down three games to the Golden State Warriors. Last Monday, once again staring elimination in the face, the Rockets rallied to win. Would they be able to pull off the improbable one more time and make it to the NBA Finals? On the 20th anniversary of the franchise's amazing 1995 championship run, no less?

Alas, no.

It's easy to play the "what if" game and wonder what could have been: if Patrick Beverly and Donatas Motiejunas had been healthy, if Dwight Howard had been better at the free-throw line, if John Harden had been less prone to turn the ball over...

It doesn't matter. The Rockets had a good season which ended at the hands of the best team in the NBA (I will be very surprised if the Warriors do not decisively defeat the Cavaliers in the Finals). After years and years of postseason disappointment - between the 1997 season and this one, the Rockets had only won one playoff series - the team finally lived up to their potential and made a deep run into the playoffs.

Hopefully they can take that next step in the 2016 playoffs.

Jeff Balke lists reasons for optimism. Matt Jackson ponders the franchise's offseason activity.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Deluge of 2015

I'm a native Houstonian, so I've seen a lot of heavy rain and flooding events over the years. But I'm not sure I've ever experienced anything quite like Monday night's deluge.
During the rain’s peak Monday night, Houston received nearly an inch of rainfall in just five minutes, and racked up nearly a foot in less than a day. The flooding in Houston was comparable to a landfalling tropical storm or hurricane. Water levels along Buffalo Bayou, which runs through downtown, eclipsed the level seen during Hurricane Ike in 2008, and was just shy of flooding during Tropical Storm Allison—the worst flood in Houston history—which dawdled over the city for six days in 2001 and inundated 70,000 houses.
(Full disclosure: I was living in Denton when Tropical Storm Allison occurred.)

I'm not sure how much rain I got at my house, but according to the rain gauge closest to my house, about 7 3/4 inches of rain fell between 8 pm Monday and 4 am Tuesday. It was an incredible amount of precipitation over a short period of time, and needless to say the City of Bellaire's drainage infrastructure was quickly overwhelmed.

My street flooded first. Then the water crept up to the sidewalks, then up to my yard, and eventually to my front porch. The threshold of my front door was a few inches higher than that, so I wasn't too worried about water getting into the house. But as the downpour continued unabated, the thought did cross my mind...

Here are some pictures I took of my front yard at about 1 am Tuesday. My camera's flash was useless (the light simply reflected off of the raindrops and obscured everything), so I took long exposure photos without the help of a tripod, which is why they're blurry. But these shots nevertheless provide a good idea of just how inundated my street became.

So much rain had fallen by the time I took these pictures that the waterline stretched uninterrupted from my doorstep to the doorsteps of my neighbors across the street.

You can see my little gardens in front of my neighbor's kid's blue truck and a few blades of grass sticking out from the water near the center of this picture. Otherwise my front lawn was completely underwater.

I caught a lightning strike while the shutter was open, which is why this picture is comparatively bright. The bottom of my tires are underwater, but thankfully the water never made it to my doors. Can't say the same for my neighbor's kid's blue truck, however; his floorboards got soaked.

When the rains stopped and daylight arrived, I stepped outside to take a couple more pictures. The water had begun to drain off by then, but it woulds still be a few more hours before the street was passable and I could make it in to work.

The good news is that the engine of neighbor's kid's blue truck apparently did not suffer any damage; the truck is still drivable. It remains to be seen what kind of harm the floodwaters did to my little gardens. That black thing at the left of the picture is somebody's water meter cover. It floated there and does not belong to anybody on my street.

My landlord contacted me Tuesday morning to make sure the house did not flood, and she was amazed yet relieved when I told her that the floodwaters managed to stay a few inches short of the front door. I didn't ask her if she had flood insurance; for what it's worth my neighborhood is in FEMA Zone "X" (the "500 year" floodplain) and flood insurance is not mandatory.

While my neighbors and I survived the flood unscathed, it's worth remembering that a lot of people didn't. The Chronicle's Eric Berger explains the forces that came together to create this mess.

And there's still more rain in the forecast.